“I don’t write about great warriors or athletes but great minds,” Walter Isaacson says. “That is the most fascinating element to explore.”
Isaacson’s book subjects have included Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and—in a new one out this month—Albert Einstein.
“Sometimes being too brilliant can get people messed up,” he says. “For instance, Kissinger felt he and President Nixon had brilliant strategies but did not want to present them openly because they believed that the American people wouldn’t understand them, or at least embrace them. Kissinger wasn’t as good at trusting the wisdom of the American people as Franklin was.”
Isaacson was born in 1952 in New Orleans. His father is a retired engineer still living in New Orleans; his mother, a real-estate agent, died 20 years ago.
Isaacson graduated from Harvard and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. He began his journalism career with the Sunday Times of London and returned home to write for the New Orleans Times-Picayune/States-Item.
In 1978, he went to New York to work at Time, first as a political correspondent and then national editor, new-media editor, and finally managing editor. He moved to Atlanta in 2001 to head CNN, where he stayed for two years before taking over the Aspen Institute, a think tank.
Isaacson is author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and Kissinger: A Biography. He’s coauthor, with Evan Thomas, of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, about a group of post–World War II policy-makers including Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, and George Kennan. His forthcoming book is Einstein: His Life and Universe.
Isaacson lives in Georgetown and Aspen with his wife, Cathy—a “lapsed lawyer” on the board of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation—and their daughter, Betsy, a junior at DC’s Maret School.
In the Aspen Institute’s office on DC’s Dupont Circle, we talked about what he’s learned.
As a biographer, how do you get at what makes people great?
By examining the fascinating relationship between intelligence and greatness, or intelligence and leadership.
But some brilliant people have been bad leaders.
Granted, the correlation between intelligence and greatness is uneven. Intelligence is one of a large number of traits that can sometimes result in greatness. But wisdom and creativity are more important than raw intelligence. There was real wisdom in Benjamin Franklin, who wasn’t the brightest person at the Constitutional Convention by far. And Einstein was a true genius, but what really set him apart from other geniuses, like Max Planck, was his creativity.
What’s the correlation between intelligence and wisdom?
Wisdom depends upon having enough experience to know, and then balance, conflicting factors in order to come to a sensible, solid conclusion.
Brilliance is at the other side of the spectrum. It entails coming up with new ideas after setting off fireworks in the mind. Brilliant people can shoot off ten fireworks a day, but only five of those may have a sliver of wisdom.
Great historical situations can blend different abilities. James Madison’s brilliance, John Adams’s passion for his beliefs, George Washington’s integrity and grandeur, Franklin’s wisdom—that mix gave the greatness of the American founders.
What’s the greatest feature of greatness?
Looking at Franklin, Kissinger, and Einstein, you can spot times when they remained absolutely true to their convictions despite enormous tugs to do otherwise. Those were the times of their true greatness. When they fudged, that detracted from their greatness.
This problem—of sticking to your convictions, thus being intellectually honest, yet knowing when to compromise—is the hardest thing we do in life.
Franklin was brilliant at finding common ground; that was part of his greatness. Yet it became a weakness when he compromised on the issue of slavery at the Constitutional Convention. He should have stuck to his principles then—and he thought that, too, afterward. To repent, he later became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
That balance—between remaining true to your convictions and living in a democracy, where other people’s convictions carry as much weight as yours politically—challenges all leaders.
Kissinger, Franklin, and Einstein all had character flaws.
My wife always worries that I’m admiring all these people who would never win a Family Man of the Year award.
When I began on Einstein, I didn’t realize he’d had an illegitimate child, a troubled marriage, and several affairs. Evidently, there’s no close correlation between one’s private life and contributions of the mind.
How long does it take to know if someone is great?
You can see early signs. Barack Obama seems from his autobiography and actions to have a good sense of self and honesty. John McCain and Joe Lieberman have deep personal principles, but each also tries to find common ground on the other side of the political or ideological spectrum.
Many contemporary people have achieved greatness—Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Pope John Paul II—but there’s a dearth of great leaders in hot spots today. We desperately need an Anwar Sadat in the Middle East, an Arab leader willing to take risks. We need that quality of leadership in Washington, too.
In today’s political realm, it’s easier to display rigid ideology than great leadership. The media, campaigns, gerrymandering of congressional districts—all push politicians toward sharp ideologies and away from deep philosophy based on values that we share as a nation.
Does it take a crisis for greatness to emerge?
Great men rise to challenges of their times—Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt. Yet some people, like Teddy Roosevelt, achieved greatness even though they didn’t live in a time of major crisis.
In intellectual life, things are different. We should consider heroes those who think creatively in science and mathematics. Heroes aren’t only those who hold a bullhorn after 9/11 or respond to Hurricane Katrina.
It’s heroic to grasp the magical relationship between great theories and observable facts. Somehow, an Einstein can look at accepted thinking about the universe and break out of it to develop new theories that better explain natural phenomena.
How did Einstein come to be the genius we know him as?
In high school, Einstein was a pretty good student but not a great one. His genius and creativity sprang from his willingness to question authority. He got kicked out of school for being rebellious. He couldn’t get an academic job or even a doctorate once he graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich because his professors considered him too impudent. But it was this impertinence that led him to think imaginatively. It allowed him to question conventional thinking that other people considered obvious, such as the idea that space and time were absolute.
So he got his doctorate later, in 1905. That was only after he’d come up with the special theory of relativity and the quantum theory of light—the two most revolutionary theories of the 20th century. He made these universe-shattering discoveries while a third-class examiner in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland.
His wife, Mileva—who had been a physics student with him in Zurich—helped him with the math. But after a while they drifted apart. He wanted a divorce but had no real money. And they had two children.
So he told her that one of those papers would win the Nobel Prize one day. If she gave him a divorce, he said, he’d give her all the Nobel Prize money. That was a lot of money—it still is. It took her a week to calculate the odds. She took the bet: Okay, she’d give him the divorce on those terms. They wrote a legal document to that effect.
Though those papers were written in 1905, it wasn’t until 1922 that he got the Nobel. That was delayed because there remained so much controversy over Einstein’s ideas. And they didn’t even give him the Nobel for relativity; they gave it for his ideas in the paper on the quantum theory of light.
Regardless, his wife got the money and bought three nice apartment buildings in Zurich.
Can an ordinary person understand Einstein’s work?
Einstein claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge. His basic concepts have a magic to them. The math is hard but not the concepts. Einstein was able to conceive his theories and describe them using visual images and pictures.
For example, the general theory of relativity says that gravity isn’t some mysterious force acting between distant objects. Rather, it’s like a bowling ball rolling on the fabric of a trampoline—it bends that fabric. If you roll billiard balls near it, they’ll roll toward the bowling ball, not because of some mysterious attraction but because the bowling ball has curved the trampoline fabric. That’s all that the theory of general relativity is—the notion that massive objects bend and warp the fabric of space.
So gravity isn’t what Newton said—a magical attraction that happens instantaneously. It’s a warping of the fabric of space and time.
What prompts creative bursts in people like Einstein?
Intellectual honesty and the courage to break out of the box. It’s what Kissinger did in conceptualizing the opening to China. It’s what Franklin did in bringing together basic values of our society, when helping to write both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s what Einstein did when he realized that time would tick-tock along at a different pace for people traveling at different speeds. It’s what he did when he realized that light could be both a wave and a stream of particles.
If that process of creativity were easy, we’d have fewer and shorter biographies.
Do you have to be steeped in knowledge before that creative burst happens?
Yes, there’s nothing worse than somebody conjuring up an imaginative solution in a field about which he or she knows nothing. Lots of people in lots of fields offer startlingly new, and startlingly wrong, ideas. And often people will get so mired in details that they can’t think creatively. The beauty of science is that it teaches us the relationship between factual evidence and general theories, something well illustrated in Einstein’s life.
We’ve lost that balance in contemporary society. I’m speaking not just of topics like stem-cell research and Darwinism but also issues like school vouchers, promoting Middle East democracy, or what to do in Iraq. We always need to balance general theories with changing empirical evidence.
But balancing everything gives you mushball leaders—transactional rather than transformational leaders.
I firmly believe—as bad as this sounds to some—that the country is best governed from the center. Our mission at the Aspen Institute is to be a place for an understanding of true values and finding common ground with people who disagree on specific policies.
But then you’re precluding great leaders.
No, I’m not. I consider Benjamin Franklin a great man who led on the basis of his values and constantly searched for common ground. That’s how he could help create the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. George Washington fought against the notion of factions. Abraham Lincoln, even with a civil war pending, appealed to the “better angels of our nature”—an idea based on common ground.
You can do this without being a mushy moderate. Ronald Reagan sought common ground very well by governing from a shared set of values. He could make sensible proposals on Social Security, have a pragmatic approach to the Soviet Union, and work with Democratic leaders like Tip O’Neill.
On the most contentious issues of our time, a good leader can find common ground to solve each critical problem. These include abortion, school prayer, stem-cell research, school vouchers, even the Palestinian/Israeli crisis. It’s true of all the issues that politicians deploy to pull us apart. On all of them we could find common ground that a majority of people would accept. As Franklin realized, compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.
It’s the mark of a great leader to say, “Look, on this abortion issue or school-prayer issue, we see ground that 70 percent of us can agree upon. Let’s all go there.” That takes more courage than being a screamer on a talk show. It takes more leadership than picking one side and refusing to compromise.
What have you learned from writing about great people?
We spend our time on this planet trying to understand how to make societies and communities better. To a large extent, that depends on understanding the character and thoughts of great people. That’s why I think it’s important to understand an Einstein or a Franklin.
Time magazine founder Henry Luce once was accused of “personality journalism” by putting people on his covers. Luce replied that Time didn’t invent that; the Bible did. That’s how the Lord told great lessons and ideas—through the stories of great people’s lives and times.